Atrociously Good: Bad Movies That Are Fun to Watch
Patrick Swayze in a scene from the 1989 movie "Roadhouse." (Courtesy photogaph)
Liam Neeson in the 2008 movie "Taken." (Courtesy photograph)
John Malkovich as Cyrus 'The Virus' Grissom in the 1997 movie "Con Air." (Courtesy photograph)
Prince in the 1984 movie "Purple Rain." (Courtesy photograph)
I spent too much of my adolescence watching the prolific output of Hammer Film Productions, better known as Hammer Horror, the English company that brought to the screen such gems as The Brides of Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, and Taste the Blood of Dracula. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Hammer Films were staple television fare, along with Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. The films had a comfortable cheesiness, as if you were settling in for an old-fashioned radio drama with a pot of tea, a cozy pair of bedroom slippers and some knitting.
The films checked off the expected elements: a vulpine Christopher Lee as a red-eyed Dracula, a manic Peter Cushing as Dracula’s nemesis Doctor van Helsing, toothless, cackling peasants who made the sign of the cross at every opportunity, the voluptuous village maiden in clinging gowns, a tavern with at least one hirsute and hostile bar keep and a host of lesser actors who frequently appeared to be dubbed into badly-synched English.
The special effects were amateurish, the music heavy-handed, the sets strictly budget, and the acting, with the exceptions of Lee and Cushing, was risible. They had no pretensions to art, and as horror they weren’t so much menacing as mildly disturbing, as if you’d just seen out of the corner of your eye a mouse skitter along the baseboard. But they reliably delivered over-heated, kitschy, vaguely sexy entertainment, and I remember them fondly.
What makes a great bad movie? There are the B and C pictures, like the Hammer films and Roger Corman’s fast, loose, scrappy movies made on the run. They were never meant to be prestigious or serious, and that’s their charm.
Then there are the movies that are so high-minded but also so over-wrought that they achieve badness without really being entertaining. Into this category I’d lump some cinematic sacred cows that were praised as magnificent epics but which made me fidgety all the way through. The level of turgid badness is in inverse proportion to the level of artistic ambition: the greater the pretension, the worse the movie. Often these movies win Oscars.
‘The English Patient’
I’m thinking of The English Patient, starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott-Thomas as beautiful, doomed lovers in North Africa during World War II. Based on the superior novel by Michael Ondaatje, it’s two movies in one. One half stars a radiant Juliette Binoche as a nurse and if the filmmakers had left it at that, I would have been content.
But the other half, which stars Fiennes and Scott-Thomas (two otherwise fine actors) is dulled by an exquisite but oppressive good taste. The two stars have diction so clipped it could cut diamonds, immaculate clothing and hair no matter how dire the circumstances (post-plane crash, for example) and dialogue that is meant to be erotic but which edges toward parody. “I. Can. Still. Taste. You,” Fiennes whispers to Scott-Thomas, who bites her lip and looks pained. All the requisite period detail seems overdone and false, a veneer of authenticity that seems obviously staged.
‘There Will Be Blood’
Another Oscar misfire is There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and starring a weirdly hammy Daniel Day-Lewis as a deranged oil man in 1920s California. Many critics called it a masterpiece: I call it pedantic and torpid, an unhappy combination. Day-Lewis was given or improvised dialogue so senseless that you don’t know whether to laugh or scratch your head, or both: “Drainage! Drainage! My straw reaches across the room to drink your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink your milkshake!” What does it mean? Do we care? When will it end?
But then there are the movies that rise to the level of badness so bad it becomes perverse genius. Why were they made? Why did the actors agree to star in them? What was the director thinking? Was extortion involved?
They’re not deliberately campy in the style of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, or Rocky Horror Picture Show, but vehicles thrown together in the Waring blender called Hollywood. You ask yourself whether the people involved actually set out to make the mess they made, whether they knew they were being funny, or whether the planets happened to align. On every level — writing, acting and directing — these movies fail spectacularly, but as comedy they have a kind of demented logic all their own.
Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Joe Eszterhas and starring Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan. 1995. This was a follow-up to Verhoeven and Eszterhas’ hit Basic Instinct, which made Sharon Stone a star. That film was on the edge of bad, but Showgirls leaped off the cliff into a void where few have gone before or since. Berkley plays a dim bulb named Nomi (Know Me: get it?) who goes to Vegas to become a star. This being a Verhoeven/Eszterhas picture, the sex scenes arrive as often as the #3 express train to Times Square, and they’re so acrobatic they defy the laws of physics.
The dialogue is mystifying, but also kind of great. In an attempted verbal seduction at a restaurant, Gina Gershon woos Berkley with the out-of-left-field comment, “I’ve had dog food.” Smirk. “Really?” says Berkley, brightening.”Yeah, a long time ago,” says Gershon. Another smirk. Berkley ripostes with a killer line: “I used to love doggy chow, too.” Is this obscure code for something naughty, or are they actually talking about doggy chow? Verhoeven and Eszterhas were paid millions for this but you can watch clips for free on Youtube. Or rent it, if you must, for the full effect.
Roadhouse, 1989. Starring Patrick Swayze, Kelly Lynch and an assortment of actors who promptly and deservedly faded into obscurity. Directed by the aptly-named Rowdy Herrington. Sometimes you can pinpoint a movie’s Bad factor by how many times it shows up on cable: Roadhouse is a regular.
Swayze plays a bouncer with a mysterious past who gets a job at a rough joint in Missouri and has to deal with a lewd, unsavory clientele. Roundhouse sums up everything wrong with the 1980s: the hair, the clothes, the music, the movies. I don’t know who gives the better performance here: Swayze or his hair. Sample dialogue: Swayze to other bouncers, not too sternly and with no visible expression. “I’m telling you straight. It’s my way or the highway. So anybody who wants to walk, do it now.” This is followed up by a line that sounds as if it came out of Little Lord Fauntleroy: “We’ve got entirely too many troublemakers here.” Poorly written, directed and acted, it’s a triple threat.
A Liam Neeson Duo
Taken, 2008 and The Grey, 2012. A Liam Neeson double-feature. I don’t know a woman who won’t happily watch Liam Neeson in just about anything. But these two try one’s ardor. Neeson acquits himself admirably, as he usually does. And both films have a certain dogged watchability from beginning to end, even when they veer into the absurd. In Taken, Neeson plays a father looking for his kidnapped daughter in Paris, and not a scene goes by without him decking, shooting, punching, kicking or garotting a villain, and vice versa. I haven’t clocked it but I wouldn’t be surprised if Neeson administered rough justice to someone at least once every minute, which makes this a slugfest interrupted by occasional dialogue, rather than the other way around. When there is dialogue it has a pithy efficiency heightened by Neeson’s gravelly whisper.
“If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”
The Grey is a Jack London-like tale about men proving themselves in Nature. And it does have London’s nasty, brutish and short ethos. Neeson survives a plane crash in Alaska and sets off with the other survivors to make their way back to civilization. But lurking, hungry wolves have other ideas. Let’s leave aside the fact that, in the wild, wolves do not exhibit the ravenous blood lust for human flesh that they do here. Nor do wolves roar like lions on the Serengeti. No, what gives a moviegoer the giggles are the animatronic wolves in action. If they’d been left to the imagination, or seen only as shadows, they would have exuded menace. But when they’re shown, they look like stuffed dogs on steroids.
Purple Rain. 1984. Starring Prince. Prince is a pop genius; the soundtrack is pop genius; the performance scenes are pop genius. The movie around the music is another matter. Write 500 times on the blackboard: Prince cannot act, Prince cannot act, Prince cannot act. My favorite scene: Prince is ANGRY. He stomps back and forth on platform heels, and looks like a peevish Tweety Bird.
Con Air, 1997, starring Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi. Any movie starring Nicolas Cage is always an open question. How far will Cage go? Sometimes his hangdog face and vocal and physical mannerisms give a movie an extra jolt of electricity that pushes the movie into wild territory. And sometimes he drags a movie down with him. The 1989 movie Vampire’s Kiss is one of my favorite Cage performances because it is so out there and surreal that you can’t believe you’re watching an actor do what he does in it.
He’s mesmerizing and tragic in Leaving Las Vegas (for which he won an Oscar) and persuasively neurotic and miserable as the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, the movie taken from Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. So is Con Air intentionally bad, or accidentally bad? I say the former.
The scenario is, of course, preposterous: America’s most violent and psychotic criminals are loaded onto one plane, which, you won’t be surprised to hear, is then taken over by them. A nerdy-looking Steve Buscemi is the worst of them all, a Hannibal Lecter mini-me named Garland Grissom who’s killed an absurd number of people. But don’t call him insane because he has a perfect retort.
“What if I told you insane was working 50 hours a week in some office for 50 years at the end of which they tell you to piss off, ending up in some retirement village hoping to die before suffering the indignity of trying to make it to the toilet on time? Wouldn’t you consider that to be insane?” No argument here. Cage drags out a soporific, unconvincing Southern accent as the poetically named Cameron Poe, and John Malkovich is dry, cold and sinister. This isn’t a great bad movie in the way Showgirls is, but it’s still bombastic, over-caffeinated and ridiculous, which gives it a special allure.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.